Saturday, May 23, 2009

Arriving in Spanish Wells

What a day!

Kristen here [And Chris] – Today is Friday 5/22/09. Yesterday morning the plan was to head from Alabaster Bay to Spanish Wells. We woke up at 6:30 to listen to Chris Parker’s weather report. He said the winds would be 10-20 knots with the chance for a few squalls with 30-40 knot winds. Hmmm…that didn’t sound too good to me. We looked outside at the weather and there was a large front to the west of us. The wind was blowing from the east.

Chris said the decision was up to me. He would be fine if we stayed or if we left. Everyone else in the anchorage was planning on leaving that morning as well. That is when I realized that it’s very difficult to make these decisions. There was an impending storm, but the winds were pushing it away from us. We would most likely be fine, but it was going to be close. I was quite sick of Alabaster Bay and wanted to move on. If we did get hit with the high winds, it would be scary and uncomfortable, but we could handle it. I said we should go.

[Added by Chris... I agree with Kristen - I was sick of Alabaster Bay at this point. Basically, it was a half moon bay with an Italian restaurant on the south end and nice beaches. There was no Internet available on the boats. I enjoy having Internet available so I can pass the time when the squalls are running through. We REALLY enjoyed Governor's Harbor, and this goes back to my comment a few weeks ago - we prefer exploring towns and meeting people over secluded anchorages. By the way - the restaurant was very good, but too expensive to eat at more than once or twice. With regards to the weather, I tend to err on the "Let's go for it side" while Kristen tends to be more cautious. We balance each other well, and I always want to make sure Kristen is comfortable with the conditions we'll be going in. This day was marginal, so I figured I'd leave it up to her.]

We pulled up anchor and headed out towards the menacing grey skies. Now you have to realize that our visibility is hundreds of miles. When we see a storm it could be a hundred miles away and not any sort of a threat, but it is still scary when you see the lightning streak clearly across the sky. We pulled up our Sirius satellite weather and watched the progress of the storm as we sailed to Spanish Wells. I was glued to the display the whole time. Our satellite weather shows the progress of the storm and its intensity in 10 -15 minute increments. It will show a rotating display of the storm at 9:00, 9:10, 9:20, and so on. So for 5 hours I watched this storm slowly progress perpendicular to us. It would build and come closer and then dissipate and move away. It would curve around in front of us and I would watch the time until the next increment came up to see if it moved out of our path.

[Added by Chris... Yeah - Kristen was glued to the screen. Every 5 or 10 minutes there would be an update of the weather picture, and Kristen would yell out - "There's an update!" Kristen and I would crowd around the screen to see what the storms were doing. The swath they cut through the Bahamas was fairly narrow, but a little finger kept ballooning out as the storm gathered up moisture, and it was this balloon that was right in our path. The Sirius system also shows lightning activity, and we could see a highly concentrated area of lightning coming up behind us about 30nm-40nm away. The system will also only show heavier areas of precipitation, so we kept getting hit by rain that wasn't displayed. I'm guessing that if they showed all of the rain on the display it would just be way too much to download via satellite.]

We were positive that the storm would cross our path as we were passing through Current Cut. This is a narrow section between Eleuthera and Current Island. I’m not sure why, but we always seem to get hit with bad weather at the most inappropriate times. Sure enough about ½ hour out from the cut, it started raining. The wind remained stable, so there were no worries. We decided to sail up to and through the cut. We had watched the three boats in front of us go through with no problem. We had absolutely no visual navigation (ability to read the color of the water, only possible when the sun is shining), but the guide book said to stay 50-150 meters off shore and then make the turn for the cut. I stood on the bow and did the best I could to see the depth. With the wind and rain, though, I could barely see the bottom right next to the boat.

[Added by Chris… There were actually two different ways to approach Current Cut. Current Cut was well named - during its peak flow the current will run at over 5kts through it. Since we max out at about 7kts, it would be dangerous for us to be IN the current for long. I spoke with some people on Spanish Wells yesterday that told me that they would see boats spun around from the current, out of control. There is a straight in approach to the cut, and there is an approach that would take you a mile south and have you follow the shoreline closely. This second approach was the recommended approach, and I'm guessing it was recommended since the straight in approach would have you in the heavy current for much longer. One of the boats we were with took the straight in approach, and the other two took the approach from the south. One of the boats - Taua - that took the south approach was about to call us on the radio to suggest we go the other way due to the fact that you had to approach the rocks so closely and the wind was somewhat heavy, but then noticed that we were within a half mile of them so they decided not to call us.]

We approached Current Island and started sailing about 100 meters off of the shore line. Now normally, when there is sun, a channel will appear deep blue among various other light green and brown shallow areas. It is very easy to spot. But today all I could see was brown water. We were sailing blind. The approach was clearly marked on the charts, so we followed the directions and continued sailing along shore. At approximately 500 feet from the turn for the cut, Chris started yelling that his depth was decreasing rapidly. “Where should I go?” He yelled to me. Ok, now I have a matter of seconds to figure out where to head the boat. I couldn’t read the water at all, and the jagged rocks of shore were to my left, so I told Chris to go right. Maybe we were too close to shore. If I made an error, I wanted to be far away from the rocks. Well, I made an error, and Chris called out the depth as we grounded the boat. We ended up sitting in 4-5 feet of water. Our boat draws just under six feet.

[Added by Chris... Yep... we grounded. We were doing great. We had reached our waypoint just south of the cut, turned right and were in the process of trimming our sails for our new course. It was at some point during the sail trimming that I glanced down at the depth sounder and saw that we were in six feet of water. I yelled to Kristen that the water was way too shallow and started trying to adjust our course to port and starboard, looking for more water, while Kristen tried to assess the situation. Because we had our sails up, we were heeled over by about 10 degrees, reducing our draft (how deep our boat goes under the water) to about 5'3" - 5'8" - it's impossible to know. We grounded in about 5.1-5.2 feet, and the first thing we did was drop our sails so we would stop moving forward. The unfortunate side effect of dropping your sails when grounded is that you spring upright, and boom - we were now drawing almost 6 feet again, and sitting in about 5 feet of water. We were REALLY grounded.]

So there we were, stuck, with no idea where to go even if we could get free. Luckily it was dead low tide, so we could just wait, but there were a few reasons why this wasn’t a good idea. First was the current in the cut. It was flowing out at the moment, but when it turned it would push us into the rocks. Second was the weather. There was another storm approaching with lots of lightning. Lightning is bad when you live under a big metal rod! So we had to get the boat unstuck and find a path to wherever the channel was. I knew what this meant we had to do. We had to put the motor on the dinghy and go depth sounding. Putting the motor on the dinghy in rain and waves is always exciting. The motor on the hoist is bobbing up and down and the dinghy is bobbing up and down and somehow you have to match the mounts up and not drop the motor in the ocean. We managed it, and Casey and I were off to depth sound.

We sounded directly around the boat and found no deep water. Then we sounded from the boat to a fixed point on shore. As we approached the rocky shore the depth dropped to 12 feet. Well, that answered that question. We were too far away from shore! I think the guide meant 50-150 feet instead of yards! The path from the boat to the channel was 6 feet deep at its shallowest. Well, that is once you got 4 feet forward.

By now the other boats we were traveling with had anchored on the other side of the cut, launched their dinghys and were there to help us. It was just amazing. There was no question. They just turned around, stopped and came to help. I explained to everyone what the plan was and the path we had to take. Then Chris thought about coral. Two of the dinghys were going to pull on the halyards to tip the boat and free it while I pushed on the bow to move the boat. Then we would plow through the grass until we hit deeper water. If we hit coral, it would put a serious dent in the boat. This stuff is as hard as rocks! So I donned my snorkel mask and stuck my head in the water while Casey dinghyed along the path we had sounded out. Ok, no coral. We commenced with the tugging and pushing with no avail. We were really stuck in hard!

[Added by Chris... When we first grounded we tried flooring the boat forward and backward. All we succeeded in doing was digging a deeper hole. Watching the dirt and grass stirred up from the bottom was not fun. When we first grounded we announced on the radio to our group what was going on. John from Asolare wanted to know if we needed help. From my perspective, we were at dead low tide. The tide should go up by at least 2 feet. My feeling was that we should throw out two anchors to hold our position, wait for the tide to rise and then just motor out of our predicament. The wind wasn't too high (maybe around 20kts), we weren't THAT close to the rocks and we knew that the water was going to rise. I told the other boats that we weren't in immediate need of help and that we were going to take a little time to assess the situation. Kristen, however, wanted to be off NOW. It took us about 30-45 minutes to sound out the bottom, and by that time all of the other boats we were with had anchored anyway, dropped their dinghies into the water and were motoring on their way to help us. The second best way to unground yourself (the first being to wait for high tide) is to reduce the depth your boat needs. Kristen mentions using halyards to tip the boat over. Just to explain, halyards are lines that you use to hoist your sails to the top of the mast, so they go all the way to the tippy top of your mast. If you pass the lower end of the halyard to a boat off to your side, and they pull on it, they will lean your boat over as they pull. Theoretically, you then motor forward or backwards to get into deeper water.]

Now we look up and see a Bahamian boat approaching with a BIG engine. Here we go! They took a halyard and got right down to business. I think they’ve done this before. Chris and Kaitlin are on the boat and the rest of us are circling the boat in our dinghys while the Bahamians put 125HP to work. They said they would pull us free and then lead us through the cut. Chris manned the wheel while the Bahamians tugged the halyard and canted the boat a good 70 degrees. It was an amazing, terrifying sight! Chris said the rail was well in the water. I yelled at him to turn the boat and go, and he replied that he had no control because the rudder was half out of the water. So Casey and I drove the dinghy to the side of the boat opposite the Bahamians. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I could plainly see the entire length of our keel about one foot below the water’s surface. Half of the bottom of our boat was above the water, incredible! I looked up and saw Kaitlin standing on the side of the boat about 20 feet above us. We had to be free now, it was just a matter of pushing the boat in the right direction. I put the dinghy to the nose of the boat and pushed. Slowly it turned, and then all of a sudden the boat went upright and was on its way. I gunned the dinghy in reverse to get out of the way and went back around to help detach the halyard from the Bahamian boat. They had it back on our boat already, so we were on our way. We were guided through the cut and safe on the other side. I drove up to the boat and tied the dinghy on and hopped aboard.

[Added by Chris... Through his radio calls, I believe, John from Asolare had been able to contact this Bahamian crew that happened to be near their boat on Current Island. They jumped in and headed over to help. At one point I was thinking I should give Kristen the camera to take pictures of the operation. I mentioned that to her yesterday and she said she would have killed me if I had suggested it! When they took that halyard, we sure did heel over! I was really concerned that stuff would be crashing all over the place down below (like my computer) and asked Kaitlin if she could go check. There was NO way she was budging from her spot clinging to the upper rail! I was almost standing on the side of the seats. In retrospect, I realize that we couldn't have been heeled over TOO radically or the prop would have been out of the water, but 50-60 degrees was probably fairly accurate. Our engine is water cooled, and the water exhaust is on the side of the boat that was heeled over. As we went farther over, the water was frothing and bubbling all around where our exhaust sits.. more on that later.]

PHEW! That was quite an adventure. Now we had to assess the damages. There was an an anchorage nearby so we were going to head for that to dive on the keel and look for dents or holes. Oh, but wait, wasn’t there another storm heading for us? Oh yea, look at that - there is grey nastiness behind us. I almost cried when Chris said we have to put the dinghy motor back on the boat. I’m still shaking, and now I have to get in the dinghy and deal with the motor again! Every fiber of my being said no, but it had to be done. If we got caught in wind and waves, the dinghy would be too heavy with the motor on it and would get damaged.

[Added by Chris... Yeah - I looked at the storm on the Sirius system and it showed lots of lightning and dark green patches (meaning heavy rain). Usually there is a good amount of wind associated with squalls like this, and I was afraid that the dinghy - hugely stern heavy with the engine still on - would be unstable. I told Kristen that I'd like to pull the engine off and she just looked at me with this incredulous look and said "No!" I basically insisted, and she shook off her emotional exhaustion and we made it happen. She's an amazing woman! Kristen mentioned assessing the damage... as I mentioned earlier, our exhaust was underwater and pumping hard when we were heeled over. When we finally made it through the cut, under power, I noticed a larger amount than usual of white smoke coming out of the exhaust. There are two big things that cause white smoke. First is water in your fuel. Second is a blown head gasket. With the exhaust underwater and pumping hard for so long, I was concerned about back pressure into the system and water getting into the wrong engine parts. On the way to Spanish Wells after the cut, our engine temperature was OK and the RPM's were OK, so I'm hoping we just shook up our tanks when we were heeled over and it's just some water in the fuel.]

Ok, now the motor is on the rail, and we’re on our way to the anchorage. Luckily the storm dissipated, and we made it without incident. I jumped in and checked things out. The keel and propeller were fine. Now for the bottom of the keel, I really don’t know what it looked like before, but I’m sure this wasn’t it. There was no more bottom paint. Most of it was white, and the front was down to the brown fiberglass. Normally this would be a problem, but we’ve been planning on repainting our bottom quite soon. Alison from AlyCat said we should get a discount now because they would have less sanding to do to get the old paint off! The good news was that there were no dings, holes or dents of any kind. So, all in all we came out unscathed.

[Added by Chris... After further discussion with Kristen, she thinks she saw the actual fiberglass weave on the bottom portion of the keel. That's not good and could be a significant repair. We'll find out when we haul.]

We pulled up the anchor and headed into Spanish Wells. We were still quite shaky, and visual navigation was still impossible. But hay, we had great charts right? Hmmm….this is sounding familiar. The channel into Spanish Wells was marked by two i-beams. We motored in and then the channel split. We took the left fork and were supposed to keep left to follow the shoreline. I saw a white marker and told Chris to keep it to his left. Oops, did I say keep it to your left? I meant to say keep left of the marker! As I noticed he wasn’t turning I yelled back to keep left. Then, as he told me later, someone radioed him and told him to turn now or he was going to ground the boat. Oh no, not again. He quickly turned and I apologized profusely. That could have been bad!

[Added by Chris... Yeah, two groundings in one day. That would have been a treat :)]

Amazingly we made it into our slip with no incident at all. This was one of those ground kissing moments. We made it! We got settled in, and settled our nerves a bit. Then we all went to explore town and grab some dinner.

Spanish Wells is quite different from other Bahamian settlements. First of all, the population is about 80% white. The houses and their yards are all well kept. The flowers and trees around here are breathtaking. People seem to care about how things look. Today we will be exploring a bit more.

[Added by Chris... Other than the racial makeup, there are two other big things I've notice about this island that sets it apart from the others. First, there are a lot of 18-30 year old's here. They aren't missing the latest generation of family. A lot of the other islands we've visited have few younger people as they all leave to go to Nassau to find work or go to school and then they don't come back. Here on Spanish Wells, they all come back. There's work here, which leads me into the second thing that sets this area apart. There's money. This is a working settlement, and the people are making money. The primary source of income is fishing - they are the largest supplier of lobster tails to Red Lobster and are the largest lobster fishers in all of the Bahamas. The same goes for Conch - they provide more conch than any other region of the Bahamas. As a result, the houses are all very well kept with lush fruit gardens. The cars are new. The streets are paved. There are numerous stores to spend money at.

A few other observations. The Spanish Wells native's accents are very unique. The accent is almost Lousiana Creole in sound, somewhere between British, Bahamian and American, but very unique. The town is "dry", as in they don't sell alcohol, even beer, in any of the markets or restaurants. This is due to the fact that the founders of Methodism landed here for a few months on their way to the New World and created a large Methodist influence. Methodists are not allowed to consume alcohol. You can go to an island right over a 50 foot bridge, though, and buy all the alcohol you want.

Lastly, I spoke to a few people from Spanish Wells, and apparently there aren't that many different families here. As a result, marriage between third or fourth cousins is not uncommon.

It's a real neat, and real different, type of community.]


Human runner said...

Wow - what an adventure! That was riveting. It's wonderful that people were so willing to jump in and help.

Melissa said...

Wow that is quite an adventure to say the least. You were lucky the Bahamian boat was there to help along with the other boats. One good reason to sail in a convoy when able too. I feel Kristin anxiety during this whole ordeal. However, my heart is out to all of you! So where do you plan on getting the boat hauled out?
Key Biscayne

Tom Ray said...

Re your engine, a couple of bad things happen when you heel too far. One is the oil goes to one side, meaning the pickup to circulate the oil may not be submerged. No lubrication. Another is oil can get places it shouldn't be and be inhaled through valves and such. Sounds like that may have happened, causing the smoke you mentioned. Another is that the cooling water intake can be out of the water. If that had happened, you would have shredded the impeller. quickly.